East, West and the nature of protests

There is only one similarity in Indian and Australian animal rights campaigns.

Art: Michael Lotsaris

It’s a hot January afternoon in a small South Indian town near Madurai. It’s 2004 and men are gathered around on an open mud field while women look on from the spectators’ gallery. Behind the fence stands a young artist with his tools, ready to sketch the scene before him.

The men anxiously await the arrival of their contender. Each year, as a part of the harvest festival, young men attempt to fight bulls to win money or a hand in marriage.

The bull comes out. The men are ready to tackle its hump to assert dominance. A few get hurt in the process and have instantly lost. Some continue to enrage the bull until it loses sight of the circle and heads to the sidelines, ramming into the fence and killing the artist.

This incident began a long and complex discussion about banning Jallikattu.

It’s 2017 and protests are trending. In this time of global unrest, we resort to traditional political actions to have our voices heard.

Recently, two governments implemented bans that resulted in such protests. While these bans occurred close in time, they were geographically distant — 7,809 kilometres apart to be precise. They were the 2016 greyhound racing ban in New South Wales and the Jallikattu ban in South India.

While the NSW greyhound ban needs little introduction, the Jallikattu ban in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu may sound less familiar due to the lack of coverage in western media. To put it simply, Jallikattu is a version of bullfighting which has been practised in Tamil Nadu for thousands of years. During the traditional harvest festival, which marks the beginning of a new calendar year, people will try to mount a bull’s hump to display dominance, strength and grit.

Protests, albeit democratic and pluralistic in nature, are also surprisingly anarchic. It is via this tool that stakeholders, such as participating individuals, protest organisers and bodies such as the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) intend on putting the “public” in public policy.

Jallikattu was banned in 2011 due to the concerns put forth by the Environment Ministry. In 2016, however, people began to grow increasingly frustrated and asked for the ban to be repealed. They based their demands on the fact that the sport is a prominent part of Tamil culture.

The reversal of the ban garnered so much support that Tamil superstar Rajinikanth extended his support towards Jallikattu saying, “Rules should be framed to avoid injuries. Instead of doing that, is it right to negate a culture?”.

In January 2017, peaceful protests took place in many cities and villages across Tamil Nadu. Shortly after, over 1000 people gathered in  Chennai, the state capital, and after police tried to forcefully evict them, the peaceful protest turned violent. Stones were pelted at vehicles and a local police station was set on fire. Twenty-two police officers were injured.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the greyhound racing ban was reversed despite 64 per cent of NSW residents supporting it. The fact that it was repealed, therefore, might have something to do with the $335 million that the industry garners for the economy each year. The livelihood of trainers was also considered, such as Mark Maroney, a trainer from Doyalson. Following the appeal of the ban, Maroney told the ABC, “a lot of nights you can’t sleep, because I had nowhere to go if this went through.”

In India, the public called for a reversal of the ban by waging violent protests. Often it was the educated class and students who were pro-Jallikattu, even when it claimed the lives of 43 people between 2008 and 2014.

Both countries prioritised human interests over animal well-being. While this is perhaps expected in Australia, for a country such as India, where the cow is regarded as a religious figure, its male counterpart being used as bait for sport is harder to swallow. In the East, culture and archaic traditions take precedence over animal husbandry; in the West, economic and capitalist interests are prioritised over the same.

In both cases, however, the governments were coerced into following public opinion. This can be seen as greyhound trainers threatened to kill all the remaining dogs if the industry was to be shut down. In India, the bullying was clearer as violent rioting broke out in the streets and PETA received threats of sexual assault and violence.

But how could the respective federal and state governments give up so easily?

The protection of animals from harm and pain is specifically mentioned in Indian constitution. When the Supreme Court first banned the sport, they cited the Five Freedoms of Animals acknowledged by Animal Husbandry organisations that include freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition, freedom from fear and distress, freedom from physical and thermal discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, and freedom to express normal patterns of behavior.

Implementing the ban, the court ruled that “bulls cannot be allowed as performing animals, either for Jallikattu events or bullock-cart races in the state of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or elsewhere in the country”.

In Australia, these issues are left to the state’s discretion, which is exactly what happened in the greyhound ban. This is irrespective of the $4.7 billion that gambling costs society in psychological issues, crime, and lower productivity.

Each government had vested interests in maintaining the status quo. In both cases, pre-existing culture and monetary interests took precedence over common human decency and efforts of ethical bodies such as PETA, which is a shame, given archaic traditions no longer serve their original purpose.